15 March 2017

Flora and Other Notes of 1857 Warren Expedition in Nebraska Territory

The government expedition led by Lieutenant Gouverneur Kemble Warren - a topographic engineer of the U.S. Army – arrived in Omaha city, traveling via steamboat from St. Louis. Others of the expedition had travelled on the steamer Twilight to Bellevue. While Warren went to Sioux City, the remainder of the group left the Missouri valley on June 27 and made their way to the Loup Fork.

While crossing the Elk Horn on June 30th, topographer J.H. Snowden in his daily journal of notable events and weather conditions, wrote of scrub oak, cottonwood and ash growing on the valley bluffs. Prairie land was noted further along, and was prevalent along the bottom of the Platte river.

Upon reaching the river further along on July 2nd: “The wood along the river is cottonwood in groves some of which are quite large, however not extending far back from the stream.” Near a place called “White lake” just eastward of Columbus city, the cottonwood was principally limited to islands in the Platte.

On July 11th, cottonwood logs 18 inches in diameter and 12 feet long were used to build a raft to transport supplies across the Elk Horn, Warren wrote in his journal. On the 14th was some “rough oak wood and ash” were noted as this party was making their way across Shell creek and to join up with Snowden and others on the Loup fork.

After the rendezvous, on July 19th, the expedition started westward up the Loup, its channel denoted by a fringe of cottonwoods. The party included military men, 24 employees as teamsters and herders and two hunters. Overall there were 51 men and provisions for one month, Warren wrote in his journal. There were eleven mule-drawn wagons and an ambulance, with 77 mules and 23 horses.

The first camp was at Looking Glass creek where the settlement of Monroe was being established. Just before this place, wood was limited to islands in the river. After going through Genoa and reaching Beaver creek, scrub oak and cottonwood were noted by J. Hudson Snowden, who was responsible for noting the topography. Near an abandoned Pawnee village: “All the ravines near this village are filled with oak,” he wrote. On reaching the mouth of the Calamus river on July 21st, scrub oak filled all the ravines, as observed by Mr. P.M. Engel, another topographer.

The next day while near the mouth of the North fork of the Loup, Snowden noted: “The wood thus far decreases as we ascent the valley being confined to islands and isolated points where the fires which yearly consume the grass, can-not reach it.”

Cedar and oak filled area ravines on the 23rd while at Warren’s fork, the lieutenant noted during his foray to the north fork.

Along the Middle fork route and for a distance of nine miles, most of the grass had been “burned out” and the fire was moving to the north and northwest, Snowden’s entry for the day mentioned. Most of the wood was limited to islands and isolated points.

On the 24th there was plenty of cottonwood along what was called “Carrey’s fork.” Also present were willow bushes and groves. Cottonwood continued to occur during the route traveled on the 25th with buffalo grass growing on the river bottom.

A few pine trees on the bluffs were seen on the 27th while along the Loup fork, noted Warren. Snowden referred to three of four of these trees.
On the 28th, Snowden noted that portions of the sand hills were nearly entirely “destitute” of vegetation. There were a few cherry and currant bushes.

Buffalo were abundant as the month ended. The grass in area was “inferior” and had been eaten down by large herds of these grazers.
On August 2nd, Warren and Dr. F.V. Hayden went about 17 miles south to what was called the Sandhills Fork, which was probably the waterway that would become known as the Dismal river. There were oak, ash and cherry growing on its bank.

Along the middle fork on August 4th: “Wood oak ash cedar. Cherries abundant not quite ripe,” Warren wrote. Snowden noted: “… wood begins ash oak etc. which now grows in considerable quantities along the valley and in the ravines. … A great many plum & cherry bushes flourish around our camp, the latter being loaded with fruit.”

On the next day Warren wrote: “The sand hills are generally covered with grass, and quite firm, but they are composed of immense hilly masses the surface of which are formed into small hills.” Cedar and oak present at the camp.

Near camp on the 9th, were “many sand cherry bushes, which grow to the height of about one-foot, and laden with fruit now ripe” Snowden wrote. A party that went a couple of miles northward to a fresh water lake, returned with some ash wood found along the border of a lake with potable water. The day’s march was seven miles. Other salt water lakes were noted as being “destitute” of vegetation except a “salt-rush” with the edge of the lake encrusted with salt.

On the 10th, in the western sand hills Snowden noted two fresh water lakes with a “luxuriant growth of grass rushes & weed around them and a few stunted ash trees, goose-berry and cherry bushes on the sides of the hills.” Warren wrote that the lakes were “very nearly covered with grass rushes and flags…”

The “numerous freshwater and saline lakes are scattered about these sandhills, affording a resort for myriads of water birds, ducks, geese, gulls, &c.,” according to Hayden’s report.

During the day, Snowden wrote about the impact of wind on the hills’ vegetation: “The road to day was very sandy and hard on the animals, especially when crossing the ridges between the valleys, where the winds cut the sand out of the sides of the hills, and blow away all the vegetation.”

This would be a reference to blowouts. This could also be the sort of habitat where the blowout penstemon would occur.

The party reached L’eau qui court – the “swift flowing stream” – on August 13th, where “A few cottonwood trees fringed the river,” Snowden wrote. Short buffalo grass grew on a high mesa on the north side of the river.

Pine were noted later in the day, and continued to occur on the valley bluffs. Also notable for these days were many signs of travelling Indians.
The entire expedition then went westward to Laramie for refitting, leaving the Niobrara valley on the 15th of August.

Numerous days later, while some of the military men continued explorations in the Black Hills and adjacent Dakota territory, a group under the direction of Lieut. James McMillan that included Snowden returned to the valley of L’eau qui court, moving slowly eastward along the running water.

Along the Niobrara River Valley

As the party moved along the Niobrarah river valley, a few cottonwoods were noted again on September 22nd and provided a scant bit of wood to burn. During some of the days, there was no wood available for the cooking fires.

Mr. Snowden mapped the route of the expedition while Mr. Engel travelled along the river, preparing maps of its topography. Reptile species were collected and then identified later.

Along the river bottom were there was “very fine” grass “intermixed with many rushes of which the animals are exceedingly fond.”

On the 23rd along the river, Snowden noted on the river bottom where “cottonwood, ash cherry trees grow to some extent and with many grape vines hanging in rich festoons over the branches … the cherry & grape are now ripe, but the later are very acid.” There were some pine on the bluffs.

For a portion of the day’s travel, Snowden conveyed that “Standing Elk accompanied us a few miles before he started back. He told us he knew the country through which we were travelling belonged to the ‘Great Father’ but that the game grass wood etc. all was the property of the Brule Indians and if we had any powder and balls to spare he would be most thankful for it.”

During the day’s travel, there was a small creek that met with the L’eau qui court, and at this place the river water was “running through the rushes and high grass. Also along the running water, there was “considerable growth of ash cottonwood & grape vines plum & cherry bushes flourish on the bottom, these for the past few days have been betraying the presence of the approach of autumn, the foliage partaking of all the varied tints – which blended together – give the bottom of the river as you look down upon it from the high bluff banks a most beautiful & rich appearance.” During the evening, two lodges of Brule Indians (a.k.a. Sichangus or Burnt Thighs) were camped a couple of miles eastward along the river, and some of them visited the camp to sell some fresh meat, Snowden said. Indications of riverine beaver were noted.

On Friday the 25th with the woody vegetation increasing as the descent of the river continued. The grass was not so good. There were pine in the ravines of the river valley, though not “however in sufficient quantity.” A notable wildlife observation for the day “were a great many antelope” of which two were killed for meat to be cooked at camp fires and served hot for supper.

Along the tributary stream explored by Snowden and Dr. Moffett explored on Saturday, unique rock formations were noted. Wood extended only about three miles up this waterway, with only a few large trees. “The slopes of the hills are gradual, and the grass in the valley is very good.” The creek valley was filled with hundreds of antelope, and “the water holes covered with flocks of small teal ducks.” This creek was designated as Antelope creek.

One of the expedition men returned from the mouth of the Snake river – which was across the river from the government camp – having met traders of the American Fur Company. Large flocks of cranes flew over the camp on the evening of September 27th. These would be migrating Sandhill Cranes.
On the 28th, Snowden noted an increase in the extent of pine growing in ravines along the L’eau qui court. A couple of days later, while at the White Earth creek, there was plenty of wood for fuel.

At the White Earth creek (“Maca sca Wakpa,”in tribal language; i.e., modern-era Leander creek) had a valley filled with small pine. Along its banks there were “immense quantities of plum bushes laden with fruit now ripe, and grapes in profusion.” There were “many signs of elk in the vicinity and several were seen,” according to Snowden.

Noted by Snowden on October 3rd in this vicinity where the military expedition camped for about two weeks, there were some red cedar in the hills. “Some large cottonwood grow along the banks of the river, and a few pine in the ravines.”

There was a bountiful amount of wild fruit, appreciated by the men in camp, with the situation well described by Snowden in his October 5th journal entry: “Since we arrived at this camp the men have been luxuriating in plums & grapes the camp being full of the fruit all the time and it has had a very beneficial effect on checking the scurvy which began to show itself amongst the soldiers.”

A species of cane was noted on the sixth in the narrow “Niobrarah” valley that was filled with springs and boggy bottoms. The plants were “fifteen feet high and very thick grow in places. While red willow grow in great profusion in the wet places while the rose & plum & cherry bushes chose higher ground.” A horse sank in a bog along the river valley. “Grass along the river is nearly all dead as are the rushes,” as noted among the hand-written notes kept by Snowden. There was considerable “course grass but the animals do not touch it.” Also present were some scattered cottonwood trees.

A confrontation occurred on October 11th between 22 Brule Indians and the military expedition that was traversing tribal lands. There was a tribal war party that left the Snake river vicinity where chief “White Black Bird” was on his death bed, and the men had a “paper” given him by General Harney, a couple of years earlier. The tribal men rode into the military camp, with bows drawn and arrows nocked in place, with a perspective that the invasive white men were “French traders they were going to take all our property,” according to the Snowden journal. The tribe’s men were “very indignant” and wanted payment for the expedition to traverse their country. One complaint was that the government men “were eating all their plums & wild fruit and burning their wood … that our [i.e., U.S. government] horses were eating and destroying all the grass along the river, that we were killing and scaring away all the game that they met the buffalo & antelope flying from our approach 100 miles before they reached us,” Snowden wrote. General Harney was supposedly required to provide a “license” to come into the country. It was a “difficult time” to get the war party to leave the military camp, he said.

During the morning of the 12th, the Indians departed, with an indicated intent to meet with “Little Thunder” as the transitory lodges of the native people were moving from their place in vicinity of the Snake river.

Numerous men of the expedition traveled a short distance eastward this day, hauling along “picks and spades” to “make a crossing to White Earth Cr. and improve the hill on opposite side” of a natural land feature along the expected route. There was little that could be done on the latter item, Snowden wrote.

Along the river on the 13th day of the month, Snowden wrote: “The grass here is only tolerable, but wood in abundance for fuel. The river here is comparatively straight for some distance. About 100 yards wide filled with sand bars & shallow below our camp it narrows very much to not more than 15 to twenty yds wide is very crooked & rushes along high walls of soft rock, after receiving the waters of the creek which I think is Little Rapid R.” Based upon land topography and map interpretation, this site would be what is now known as McCann Canyon.

Cedar and a “little pine” were denoted by Snowden as seen during the 22 miles of travel during the day.

This expeditionary group spent several days at this place, awaiting the arrival of others associated with the Warren expedition that had traversed other lands of these plains.

On October 15th, the “motley group of men presenting quite a fantastical appearance” as led by Lieut. Warren rejoined the portion of the expedition that had been languishing along the L’eau qui court at a camp by the mouth of what came to be known as Bear creek.

For a few days the group remained at this camp. They talked. They reorganized supplies. There was four inches of snow and cold on the 17th.
As the government expedition continued their eastward trek, they reached the Little Rapid river (i.e., the waterway within the modern-day McCann canyon). Woody plants present “Pine and cedar grow in the bluffs while a few elm & cottonwood & cherry bushes fringe the banks.” There were pine in other area ravines, Snowden wrote. “Pine is increasing in quantity & size as we descend but wood in the bottoms diminishes in quantity.”

On October 19th, Edgar W. Warren denoted some cottonwood growing along the L’eau qui court. Some pine timber was noted along the valley bluffs on the 20th. Words written by Snowden referred to “fine springs” in ravines and sands hills to the north showing “their white summits.” There was timber at a distant place.

Warren again noted pine on the 22nd. Most often his account simply referred to the presence of timber.

A few large ash were noted on the 22nd, growing on the river bottom with “good grass,” a few miles west of the confluence of the Snake river, according to Snowden. The L’eau qui court had “many little low grassy islands.” Pine was said to not be very abundant.

On the 23rd, the running water river for a few miles was “filled with large islands there running in a very narrow channel inclosed between steep & broken hills. Pine in considerable quantities on south side, but none on north before reaching the mouth of the small river which is 2 ½ miles back from our camp.”

The military group as was a relatively short distance eastward of the Mini-cha-duza wakpa (or Rapid creek; now designated as Minnechaduza Creek). On October 25th, near the camp, ravines were “filled with scrub oak, ash, a few elm, plum & cherry bushes in the beds, while their sides are covered by pine.” Near the mouth of a tributary there was found some black walnut.

The route of the expedition continued along the north side of the traversable Niobrara valley.

Near Long Pine creek (initially identified as the creek where the pine grows long out in 1855) on October 26th, with Snowden mentioning pine being present in the ravines, according to his journal entry for the day. On the 27th, there was “plenty of wood” represented by “pine oak etc.” The distance travelled for the day was 20 and 6/10 miles.

The camp site on October 28th was beside the mouth of the Keya Paha (or turtle butte) river. By the end of the month, the expedition was in the Dakota territory, on their way to Fort Randall, on the Missouri river, which was reached on November 1st.

Flora Records of the Era

Assistance in identification of some of these species was provided by professor C. Dewey to Dr. Hayden. This current list of plant species has been developed with the assistance of Dr. David M. Sutherland, professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. His interest and help were essential to convey the historic notations in a manner suitable to current botanical identifications.
Information given is plant family; indicated or designated scientific name; plant locale notes; then plant modern name or other notes; perhaps notations on the interpreted modern locality; and record source.


Froelichia floridana Moq.; sandhills; plains snakecotton; Hayden 1862


Leptocaulis patens Nutt.; Loup fork; scaleseed, Spermolepis patens; Hayden 1862


Acerates viridiflora Ell.; Loup fork, July 27th; green milkweed, Asclepias viridiflora; northeast Custer county; Hayden 1862

Anantherix viridis Nutt.; Loup fork, July 16th; green antelope-horn, Asclepias viridis; area of Loup fork confluence; Hayden 1862, Warren 1875

Asclepias incarnata Linn.; moist places on the Loup fork; swamp milkweed; Hayden 1862

Asclepias macranthera, Torr.; Loup fork; a milkweed; specimen would need to be studied to determine a proper identity, according to Dr. Sutherland; Hayden 1862, Warren 1875

Asclepias Meadi, Torr.; Loup fork, sandhills; Mead’s milkweed [A. Meadii]; not known to occur in Nebraska so specimen would need to be studied to determine proper identification, according to Dr. David Sutherland; Hayden 1862


Thelypodium integrifolium; Loup fork; entireleaved thelypody or foxtail thelypodium; Hayden 1862


Silene Drummondi Hook.; Loup fork; Drummond's campion, Silene drummondii; Hayden 1862


Lechea major Michx.; Sand hills, Loup fork; probably frostweed, Crocanthemum bicknelii according to Dr. Sutherland; Hayden 1862

Lechea minor Lam.; Sand hills, Loup fork; pinweed, probably Lechia stricta or L. muconata according to Dr. Sutherland; Hayden 1862


Cristatella Jamesii Torr. and Gray; Loup fork; James' clammyweed, Polanisia jamesii (Torr. & A. Gray) Iltis; Hayden 1862


Polanisia uniglandulosa Gray; on Loup Fork; now clammy weed, Polanisia dodecandra; Nebraska subspecies is trachysperma; Warren 1875


Calystegia sepium R. Br.; Loup fork; hedge bindweed; Hayden 1862

Ipomea leptophylla Torr.; in the sandhills on Loup fork, along the Niobrara, it is very abundant; bush morning-glory; Hayden 1862, Warren 1875


Penthorum seloides Linn.; Loup fork; ditch stonecrop, Penthorum sedioides; Hayden 1862


Juniperus virginiana L.; along the Loup fork and the Niobrara river; eastern red cedar; Warren or Snowden journals


Croton muricatum Nutt.; sandhills; likely sand spurge, Croton texenis, according to Dr. Sutherland; Hayden 1862

Euphorbia hexagona Nutt.; sandhills of Loup fork, Niobrara; abundant; sixangle spurge; Hayden 1862

Euphorbia hypericifolia Linn.; sandhills on Loup fork; most likely Missouri spurge, Euphorbia missourica; Hayden 1862


Amorpha canescens Nutt.; very abundant on the upland prairies; Loup fork, and Niobrara river; leadplant; Hayden 1862, Warren 1875


Psoralea digitata Nutt.; Sand hills on Loup fork; now palmleaf Indian breadroot, Pediomelum digitatum; Hayden 1862

Quercus macrocarpa Michx.; along the Niobrara river; bur oak; Warren or Snowden journals


Eustoma Russelianum G. Don.; around saline lakes in the sandhills of Loup fork and Niobrara; very abundant; August; showy prairie gentian; western sandhills in August; Hayden 1862


Ribes hirtellum Michx.; in the western sandhills; gooseberry; Warren or Snowden journals

Ribes odoratum H. Wendl.; along the Loup fork in the central sandhills; buffalo currant; Warren or Snowden journals


Juglans nigra L.; in the Niobrara valley eastward of Minnechaduza creek; black walnut; Warren or Snowden journals


Juncus species; at lakes in the western sandhills; rush; Warren or Snowden journals


Brunella officinalis Linn.; along the Loup fork, July 30th; a species of broomrape; Brunella officinalis is now Prunella vulgaris or self-heal, according to Dr. Sutherland; Middle Loup river; northwest Blaine county; Hayden 1862


Monarda aristata Nutt.; Sandhills on Loup fork, August 1st; probably plains bee-balm, Monarda punctata; Middle Loup river; ca. Thomas county; Hayden 1862

Montelia tamariscina Gray; sandhills on Loup fork; water-hemp, Monarda clinopodioides; Hayden 1862

Pyenanthemum lanceolatum Pursh; Loup fork, July 31, 1857; specimen most likely Virginia mountain-mint, Pycnanthemum virginianum; Middle Loup river, ca. Thomas county; Hayden 1862


Callirhoe macrohiza Gray; Loup fork, July 22nd; now pink poppy-mallow, Callirhoe alacaeoides; historic Pawnee reservation on the lower Loup river; Hayden 1862


Fraxinus pennsylvanica Marsh.; along the Loup fork, in the western sandhills and along the Niobrara river; green ash; Warren or Snowden journals


Oenothera rhombipetala Nutt.; Sand hills, August 4th; a primrose; Middle Loup river, Mullen vicinity; Hayden 1862

Oenothera spinulosa var. Drummondii; Loup fork of the Platte, July; a species of evening primrose that would need to be studied to determine the specific species; Hayden 1862


Argemone hispida Gray; Loup fork; rough pricklypoppy and no doubt Argemone polyanthemos according to Dr. Sutherland; Hayden 1862, Warren 1875


Pinus ponderosa P.& C. Lawson; on butte along the Niobrara river valley; ponderosa pine; Warren or Snowden journals


Phragmites australis (Cav.) Trin. ex Steud.; along the Niobrara river on October 6th, i.e., at the mouth of Leander creek; noted as a species of cane growing 15 feet high and with a very thick growth; perhaps common reed; Warren or Snowden journals


Gilia longiflora Torr.; in sandhills of Niobrara river; showy ipoposis, Ipomopsis longiflora; Hayden 1862, Warren 1875


Eriogonum Jamesii Benth.; sandhills; most likely annual wild-buckwheat, Eriogonum annuum according to Dr. Sutherland; Hayden 1862


Rumex venosus Pursh.; Loup fork; wild begonia; Warren 1875


Talinum parviflorum Nutt.; Sand hills on Loup fork; sunbright, Phemeranthus parviflorus; Hayden 1862


Anemone cylindrica Gray; Loup fork; candle anemone; Hayden 1862, Warren 1875

Pulsatilla patens D.C.; in the sand hills of Loup Fork; now pasque flower, Anemone patens; Warren 1875


Ceanothus ovalis Bigelow, var. pubescens; sand hills of Loup Fork on the Niobrara river; new jersey tea or Ceanothus herbaceous; Hayden 1862, Warren 1875


Prunus americana Marsh.; along the Niobrara river; wild plum; Warren or Snowden journals

Prunus pumila, Linn.; abundant in the sand hills of Loup fork; western sandcherry with Nebraska plants are variety besseyi, according to Dr. Sutherland; Hayden 1862, Warren 1875


Populus deltoides Bartr. ex Marsh.; along the Loup fork and Niobrara river; plains cottonwood; Warren or Snowden journals

Salix species; along the lower Loup fork; along Niobrara river; willow and red willow; Warren or Snowden journals


Pentstemon acuminatus Lindl.; Sandhills on Loup fork; sharpleaf penstemon; might possibly be blowout penstemon, Penstemon haydenii S. Wats., according to Dr. Sutherland; a specimen collected is in the Gray herbarium at Harvard University and has been identified to P. haydenii (Sutherland 1988); Hayden 1862

Pentstemon Fendleri Gray; Sandhills on Loup fork; may possibly be Penstemon acuminatus, according to Dr. Sutherland; Hayden 1862

Petalostemum macrostachyium Torr.; Sand hills along the Loup fork and Niobrara; Petalostemon macrostachys is Dalea cylindrices; a rare but not unlikely species; the specimen would need to be seen to make certain its identification, according to Dr. Sutherland; Hayden 1862

Petalostemum villosum Nutt.; sand hills on Loup fork; now silky prairie-clover, Dalea villosa; Hayden 1862


Ulmus americana L.; along the Niobrara river; American elm; Warren or Snowden journals


Vitis riparia Michx.; along the Niobrara river; riverbank grape; Warren or Snowden journals

Undetermined: Allium stellatum Nutt.; Loup Fork; likely a misdetermination as discussed by Robert Kaul in Flora of Nebraska; may be a variety of Allium canadense according to Dr. Sutherland; prairie onion or autumn onion; Warren 1875. Also: Indeterminate name; in the western sandhills; flag the noted plant type; the identification of this species cannot be determined; Warren or Snowden journals


Photocopies of the hand-written journals of G.K. Warren and J.H. Snowden available from federal archives.

Ferdinand V. Hayden. 1862. On the geology and natural history of the upper Missouri. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 12: 1-218.

David M. Sutherland. 1988. Historical notes on collections and taxonomy of Penstemon haydenii S. Wats. (blowout penstemon), Nebraska's only endemic plant species. Transactions of the Nebraska Academy of Sciences 16: 191-194.

G.K. Warren. 1875. Preliminary report of explorations in Nebraska and Dakota in the years 1855-’56-’57. Government Printing Office reprint. 125 pages.

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